My experience as a student of the liberal arts at St. John’s College in Annapolis has had a profound impact on my life both personally and professionally. I am currently a medical oncologist at the City of Hope Comprehensive Cancer Center and have spent my life caring for people with cancer and conducting both basic and clinical research designed to develop new and more effective therapies to help extend people’s lives and sometimes cure their disease.
Unlike most of my peers, I did not have a scientific major in college, but chose a school where I could obtain a broad liberal arts education and confront the important questions that we all face as members of the human family. Beyond the books we read and discussed and the math and science we studied, one of the most important gifts of that education has been acquiring the habits of listening and reading critically and of engaging people in respectful dialogue to understand a question or a problem at a deeper level. The broad education I received at St. John’s was not restricted to the humanities; we studied math and the sciences too.
I am frequently asked how I came to choose oncology as a profession, and my answer is often that it is the most philosophical of the medical specialties, forcing me to confront questions that are most important in our life and in our relationships with each other.
Over the years, this discipline prepared me to confront new intellectual and professional challenges, to be unafraid to learn new knowledge, and to have a life of continuous and joyful learning. St. John’s College is a small school where discussion, exchange of ideas, and teaching each other were important aspects of the learning experience. Given the structure of that curriculum, my education taught me how to appreciate and learn new disciplines.
This has been important in the success we have had in our cancer research and in the care of people with this disease. I am frequently asked how I came to choose oncology as a profession, and my answer is often that it is the most philosophical of the medical specialties, forcing me to confront questions that are most important in our life and in our relationships with each other. The faculty with whom I studied at St. John’s facilitated this love of learning and instilled in me the courage to confront other difficult subjects.
Taken together, my liberal arts education prepared me to listen respectfully to all patients, recognizing that the lives of each of them in their own way was a great book from which I could learn while trying to help them with care and research. Admittedly, it was a challenge to go from a liberal arts curriculum to such a specialized education, but now medical schools are increasingly recognizing the value of such an education, which medical students bring to the classroom, bedside, laboratory, and ultimately a career. This demonstrates that a liberal arts education can prepare one for all careers, regardless of the vocation. A liberal arts education prepares one for a lifetime of learning and deepening one’s knowledge of one’s self and the world around us.